Authentic portrait of the spirit of Ireland

From a talk given by, Bruce Arnold, the biographer of the Irish painter Jack Yeats to the Royal Society of Literature

Jack Yeats was the greatest of the Yeatses in terms of his dedication to the ideals of nationalism. This was a prevailing consideration for his brother, William Butler Yeats, and an abiding preoccupation of his his father, John Butler Yeats. Willie's nationalism was formed by John O'Leary, who had been greatly admired by John Butler Yeats, and reinforced by Maud Gonne, with whom he had an intense but emotionally fruitless relationship.

Jack Yeats was the greatest of the Yeatses in terms of his dedication to the ideals of nationalism. This was a prevailing consideration for his brother, William Butler Yeats, and an abiding preoccupation of his his father, John Butler Yeats. Willie's nationalism was formed by John O'Leary, who had been greatly admired by John Butler Yeats, and reinforced by Maud Gonne, with whom he had an intense but emotionally fruitless relationship.

His poetry reflected this, as it did the prevailing political ideas of the period. But the political realities of Ireland during the early 20th century were at odds with the career of the poet, and the truth is that WB Yeats diverged in his writing from the life of Ireland, and became disillusioned and quite detached. The Ireland of his early dreams was presided over by a group of writers and artists who saw it as their "creation", and wrote into being something that was clearly at odds with what actually existed.

Jack Yeats, seen in this context, is quite different. He did not try to shape, but to understand and describe. He resisted the implicit invitation to be part of an organised and orchestrated "Literary Revival". He came late to Ireland, both in the physical and metaphorical sense. He did not reside in the country until 1910. He exercised none of the authority which his brother attempted to impose on what was happening, and he never identified what he painted with the affairs of the state. While many of Willie's poems link him to political events, Jack went out of his way to deny such associations.

Jack came from his mother's side of the family, Unionist and stoutly Protestant, successful in mercantile endeavour, committed to law and order, disdainful of failure. Jack's Ireland was to change radically during his lifetime, but he followed rather than led that change. However, having committed himself to the country before it was a state, and to the people when they still faced a great and bloody struggle for independence, he never faltered or changed his mind. Everything he drew or painted was a creative embodiment of the life of the country. He was overtly committed to it, in his early exhibitions, and sustained the idea of presenting people with a visual chronology of "Life in the West of Ireland", which was the title he applied to his exhibitions between 1898 and 1914.

After that, the enchantment of a local life in Sligo or Donegal or Kerry, and the depicting of individual men and women and the episodes they experienced, were transformed to a universal stage. He painted humanity's struggle, giving it an Irish location, but making its plot eternal. This prevailed from the early oil paintings, just before the First World War, until the final great canvases executed in his solitary studio in Fitzwilliam Square, during the dark and desolate 1950s in Ireland. Yeats's 1,100 oil paintings, some of them vast in size, present us with a seamless picture of Ireland's life and history, of its people and its entertainment, its horse-racing and other sports, its theatre and circus and fairground and peasant life.

His brother gave up this task, which in his early years he had assumed with a lofty sense of his leadership, and departed to Italy and then France. His brother, watching the country change, and seeing its fulfilment as something quite different from the expectations of the group led by Willie and responsible for the Literary Revival, simply adapted to it.

Quietly, without declaring himself, he took over the representation of this Ireland, more real, more true, more actual. This is why he is revered as no other painter that Ireland has produced. This is why ownership of a Jack Yeats is the beginning of artistic wisdom. His skills as a painter were flawed. But his energy and his inspiration were flawless. He dreamed into being the life of his fellow men and women, and it is never false, never archaic, never forced.

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